right to life of climate deniers, children in poverty, and future
A critical evaluation of the deleted and withdrawn 2012 text "Death penalty for global warming deniers?"
February 2017, revised July 2019
Further information in
change and its many interacting negative consequences will probably cause the premature deaths of a billion people (mostly
children living right now) and all but destroy most developing and
tropical countries. There has never been a bigger tragedy. But hardly anyone
cares, as I found out in 2013.
We have known for a long time that our greenhouse gas emissions will
have catastrophic consequences in the future. But we are continuing to emit
as if we were stupid or evil. Which of these two words is the right
one? Astonishingly, no-one knows. The answer is blowing in the wind.
On top of that, thousands of people all over the world are
publicly lying about climate change and its causes. For decades, this
unprecedented criminal culture of truth
distortion has been preventing the world from responding
constructively to the challenge of climate change, creating a global existential crisis.
The law is supposed
to protect the public from dangerous people, but the climate deniers --
perhaps the most dangerous criminals of all time -- are not
being tried and punished. They are not even considered guilty! On the
contrary, they are handsomely rewarded for their efforts by the
fossil fuel industry.
Enormous numbers of lives could
be saved if the International Criminal Court tried the most influential climate deniers and jailed those who were found guilty of crimes against humanity. But the law
currently does not even recognize influential climate denial as a crime.
Why is climate denial so dangerous? The reason has to do with poverty.
The most common cause of premature death in coming decades and
centuries will be a combination of two main factors: climate change and
poverty. People with money will probably be able to adapt. Others will
not, with fatal consequences.
Every day, over 10,000 children die in poverty in developing countries (more).
They usually die of hunger or disease, but the ultimate cause is an unfair
global economic system. Every single death is a tragedy. It puts things in perspective to get up in the
morning and think of those 10,000 children who will die today. How do
their 10,000 mothers and 10,000 fathers feel about that? Imagine 100
villages. In every village, 100 children will die today,
because the global rich (including 2000 billionaires) are too greedy to spread a little wealth around. Imagine 100 new children
dying every day, in every village.
This is happening because we humans are so bad at basic childhood
skills like honesty and sharing. Did we all fail at kindergarten? Global poverty is a problem that can and could be
solved. The United Nations and many others are working hard on it (more), but as long as we elect politicians that allow tax havens to exist (more) and corporations to have more power than governments (more), the forces preventing progress will be bigger than the forces promoting it.
The current global death rate in connection with poverty will probably
double toward the end of the century due to climate change. It is hard
to see what else could happen, given the number and diversity of
disastrous predictions in mainstream peer-reviewed scientific journals. If this assumption is correct, our current
are killing 10,000 additional
future children every day. In fact, today's greenhouse emissions are
probably killing many more future people than that -- perhaps 10
million per year (more).
For those few of us who regard human lives as our greatest good and every
life as equally valuable, this is the world's biggest problem. But it
is carefully suppressed,
even by those with a "global outlook". Not even the "lefties" and
"greenies" are talking about the future death toll from climate change!
What can we do about that? One option is to attract attention to the basic rights of vulnerable people
and how they are being trashed by the global
rich, the political right, and the climate deniers. Today, anyone can
write a text on that topic, put it in the internet, and send it to
social media. Anyone can write about the hypocrisy of a global economic
system that likes to talk about human rights and oh-so-carefully
protects the rights of the rich while at the same time quietly ignoring
massive rights violations. Anyone can write about the mega-deadly
consequences of our greed and indifference.
I wrote a text of that kind in 2012, and here's what happened.
The difference between a question mark and an exclamation mark
the last days of 2012, sensationalist media reported that I had "called
for" the death penalty for (influential) climate deniers. Those
who had actually read my internet blog knew that was not true.
The title of my text was
deliberately misleading: "Death penalty for global warming deniers?"
People of diverse political colors and stripes pretended not to have
seen the question mark and responded as if it
had been an explanation mark.
But the answer to the question in the title was clearly stated in the text. I had clarified my total
opposition to the death penalty at three different points:
I have always been opposed to the death penalty in all cases,
and I have always supported the clear and consistent stand of Amnesty
International on this issue. The death penalty is barbaric, racist,
expensive, and is often applied by mistake. Apparently, it does not
even act as a deterrent to would-be murderers. Hopefully, the USA and
China will come to their senses soon.
mass murderers should not be executed, in my opinion. Consider the
politically motivated murder of 77 people in Norway in 2011. Of course
the murderer does not deserve to live, and there is not the slightest
doubt that he is guilty. But if the Norwegian government killed him,
that would just increase the number of dead to 78. It would not bring
the dead back to life. In fact, it would not achieve anything positive
at all. I respect the families and friends of the victims if they feel
differently about that. I am simply presenting what seems to me to be a
note that I am not directly suggesting that the threat of execution be
carried out. I am simply presenting a logical argument. I am neither a
politician nor a lawyer. I am just thinking aloud about an important
I am totally opposed to the death penalty for the usual,
One is the general idea that killing is justified only in
self-defence, to save one's life or the life of others from an
immediate threat. The death penalty is not self-defence; it is legalized, premeditated killing.
The death penalty is not a solution to anything. You don't stop
killing by participating in it. This principle applies to the
punishment of all crimes, including the worst ever. Following the
Nuremberg trials in 1945-46, ten prominent Nazis were hanged, although
they could equally have been jailed for life. The death penalty
achieved nothing except to continue the cycle of killing that the
Nuremberg trials were supposed to stop.
The inconsistency of death-penalty advocates
Another reason to unconditionally reject the death penalty is
the inconsistency of arguments used by death-penalty fans. Many want the
death penalty in response to the most
serious crimes, but the most serious crimes are not even
recognized as such, let alone punished. From a human-rights
perspective, the biggest crime of all is to cause the death
of an enormous number of people. That
frighteningly often, and my "scandalous" text offered
a series of examples. According to this criterion, the most influential climate deniers are the worst criminals of all time.
is remarkable thing that many death-penalty advocates are also climate
deniers. Many such people are members of the US Republican Party, for
example. My strong recommendation to those people is to consider their
own interests and change their views on both topics, urgently. In case
the penny has not yet dropped, let me spell it out. Philosophers like
to make the following logical connection: if (i) all men are
mortal and (ii) Socrates is a man, therefore (iii) Socrates is
mortal. If you think (i) the death penalty is justified for the biggest
crimes, and (ii) you are committing one of the biggest crimes, (iii) what
conclusion might we draw from that? And whose idea was that,
originally? It certainly wasn't mine. This contradiction has been out
there for decades.
Death-penalty-supporting climate deniers should also be aware of the
following argument. The death penalty is not effective at deterring
murder. One reason is that murder often happens in anger: in the moment, murderers may forget about the consequences. Another is that potential murderers are not necessarily more afraid of death than of life imprisonment. These are well-known reasons for ending the death penalty forever (more). But could the death penalty be an effective deterrent in the case of influential climate denial? Influential
climate deniers often work deliberately and carefully. They
are well informed and have plenty of time to consider the
consequences of their actions. They are unlikely to risk the "ultimate
That being the case, someone familiar with the trolley problem in philosophical ethics could
one day argue that it is worth "sacrificing" one life to save a million
lives. When it comes to defending the right to life of a million
people, they might argue, we have to remember that every single person has the same
inherent dignity and the same right to live. Multiply that by a million
and you have an enormous problem. I cannot deny that in this extreme
case an extreme
approach of some kind might be justified -- at least theoretically --
but only if it is clear in advance that nothing else could
prevent a massive catastrophe. The death penalty does not fit this
criterion, because life imprisonment is probably equally effective.
Foundations of 21st-century ethics
For those readers who take issue with aspects of these arguments, allow
me to formulate some basic assumptions before we proceed:
- Every human life has inestimable value.
- The value of a human life is the universal foundation of human value systems.
living member of human society has essentially the same value
regardless of gender, cultural background, material possessions,
socio-economic status, skin color, physical/psychological condition, or
guilt/innocence. Children may have more value than adults because they
have more life-years to lose if they die.
- We evaluate
ecosystems in terms of their value for humanity, now and in the future.
Because we depend on ecosystems for our survival, their value is
enormous -- comparable with the value of very large numbers of people.
- Therefore, the size of a tragedy in which many people die corresponds approximately to the number of deaths.
time, effort and money that we put into preventing a future tragedy
should be proportional to the risk. Risk is a product of damage
and probability. The probability of climate change causing the
premature deaths of a billion people (over a period of a century or
more) is now approaching 100%. Therefore, climate change is the biggest
challenge humanity has ever faced.
we should be putting a large proportion of our available time, effort
and money into mitigating global climate change (comparable with trying
to win a war). As part of that effort, we should be legally
protecting the human rights of billions of vulnerable people by
effectively and permanently ending the activities of the most
influential climate deniers. That in turn involves prosecution and
has always been a matter of life and death, in certain situations. Wars
often start with publicly proclaimed lies or logical fallacies (e.g.,
"You are threatening to attack me, therefore I will attack you first"). From this we learn that honesty
can be a matter of life and death for millions of people. Today,
honesty has become a matter of human survival or extinction.
I became aware of the legal and ethical problems surrounding the death
penalty in the 1980s, I have opposed it unconditionally. Since the
have been a member of Amnesty International, first in the
UK and then in
Austria. During that time, I have participated in
countless urgent actions and letter
writing campaigns to stop the death penalty in different countries -- both in specific cases
universally. From 1999 to 2010 my yearly donation to Amnesty Austria
€87,20 (converted from
Austrian shillings), and since 2011, I have donated €100 Euros
year. Amnesty is more important today than ever. We need your
support. Please consider a yearly donation.
From 2000 to 2010, I became increasingly aware of a basic ethical
problem. What is more important to me personally --
the basic rights of a billion children in developing countries, or my
well-being? If I had a chance to promote their rights, but only by
risking my well-being, would I do it? Hopefully I am not the only one
asking that question.
So I became politically active in
the area of interculturality and human rights (more).
The aim was to reduce racism and xenophobia by
applying insights and findings from research in contrasting academic
disciplines and collaborating with practitioners in NGOs, government,
education and so on. The project culminated in an international conference
that inspired a second
conference and diverse later
projects. I was also increasingly interested in world hunger and child mortality and the astonishing tendency of rich countries to pretend this is not happening or to underestimate the ethical consequences.
But I can only do this work of this kind in my limited spare time. So I
decided to identify today's most important issues on focus on
them (more). And here's what I realized: If
human lives are the
foundation of our value system and every human life is equally
valuable, the problem of premature mortality is even
serious than everyday racism. But premature mortality is itself about racism,
because most of the victims are or will be black.
The aim of my text
leads us to climate change. Many people agree that climate change is
today's biggest issue, but if you ask why, you will get different
answers, for example:
are extremely serious issues. No question about that. But from a
human-rights perspective, none of them is the main reason. The main
reason is that climate change will cause hundreds of millions of
premature deaths. Perhaps billions. That is the main point, and it has enormous consequences.
- It will cause massive biodiversity loss. Rainforests and coral reefs will be destroyed.
- It will ruin the quality of life of our children and grandchildren.
- It will cause wars and mass migration.
- It will mean the end of human civilisation.
Given this background, my main intention in 2012 (and it was clear from
the first page of my text) was to defend the right to life of
those countless millions of people who will suffer most
from climate change. In the public discussion that followed, hardly anyone mentioned that point, as if those people
in developing countries did not exist or did not matter. Today, little
How much longer do we have to wait for the right to life of a billion
people in developing countries to be taken seriously?
realised that I had intuitively applied a series of known techniques
for attracting attention with headings (more).
heading was short, concise, and understandable out of context. It started with powerful keywords, addressed important current issues, asked a
question, excited curiosity, and both surprised
and frightened the reader. I
had chosen a provocative title and taken a personal risk to attract
attention to a series of critically
important issues that were evidently being suppressed. How many deaths
will climate change cause, especially in developing countries? Who will
be held responsible? What will be the legal consequences?
But many people read no
further than the heading. In fact, some did not even read to the end of the heading! We live and learn. In any case: if I had not presented my text in such a scandalous fashion, no-one
would have read it. Whether my strategy was a good one or not is for
others to decide.
My statement was deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand I explained in
detail why the death penalty is never justified. On the other; I
proposed limiting the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths, and
explored the consequences. The purpose of this contradiction was
to attract attention to the world's most important issue from a
human-rights perspective and start a public discussion.
The strategy was
successful. Many people announced their total opposition
to the death penalty and started talking about human rights. Some
did this in public for the first time. In retrospect, that made the accompanying threats,
defamation, and cyberbullying seem worthwhile. I realised later that
every self-righteous person who presented me as "evil" was a small victory for human
rights, even if those people had misunderstood my central message.
Toward the end of my text, I quipped that "People will be saying that Parncutt has finally lost it."
Given the irrational public response to my text, one might be excused
for thinking that all of humanity has "lost it". By failing to address
the issues that I raised, humanity is risking losing everything. What
could be more irrational than that?
can still read exaggerated, misleading discussions of this episode in the internet. In the following, I
will attempt to put the
record straight, for those who care enough to
listen. Unfortunately, there are not many of you folks about.
A billion lives
change is not only about
polar bears and coral reefs. Of course polar bears and coral reefs are
very important. Enormously important. But climate change is also threatening the lives of
a billion people. It could kill
100 million people by 2030 and many
more in the long term.
rising CO2 concentration
of the earth's atmosphere, the laws of physics, the world's burgeoning human
population, and the well-known
multiple consequences of global warming for humans -- all of that taken
-- will probably mean premature death for a billion people over the
next century. What happens after that is anybody's guess.
That is true even if global
emissions fall rapidly in coming years and warming is limited to 2°C. Beyond that, every additional degree celcius could
(over a long period) kill an additional billion people.
The number one billion is a rough, order-of-magnitude estimate. It
of millions of children who are alive right now in developing countries
and further hundreds of millions who will be born in coming decades. These
people will die early (as infants, children or young adults) with a
certain (shockingly high) probability as a result one or more of the
known side-effects of climate change, such as rising sea
freak storms, changing precipitation patterns, disappearing glaciers
affecting water supplies, ocean acidification, more frequent bushfires,
loss of biodiversity and so on. The list is long. Many of these side effects will reduce food
supplies, causing famines.
Today, about 10 million people are dying prematurely each year because
they are living in poverty. Without poverty, they would not die early.
This number has been steadily decreasing in recent decades due to
economic growth and international development projects. It has now
presumably as small as it will ever get. The rate of premature
mortality in connection with poverty will increase steadily from now
on, for at least the next century, due to climate change.
At the start of my text (in the third paragraph,
after two short introductory paragraphs) I had written that
the earth's temperature rises on average by more than two degrees,
interactions between different consequences of global warming
(reduction in the area of arable land, unexpected crop failures,
extinction of diverse plant and animal species) combined with
increasing populations mean that hundreds of millions of people may die
from starvation or disease in future famines.
Soon after that came this passage:
without global warming (GW) (or ignoring the small amount that has happened so far), a
billion people are living in poverty right now. Every five seconds a
child is dying of hunger (more).The
Nations and diverse NGOs are trying to solve this problem, and making
some progress. But political forces in the other direction are
stronger. The strongest of these political forces is GW denial.
Right across the political spectrum people responding to my text acted as if they had missed these central
points. Today, we are still
treating billions of human lives as unimportant by
comparison to the right of rich countries to burn as much fossil fuel
as we want.
The lives of a billion
children now living in developing countries will really be cut short by global
warming. This is really true. I am not exaggerating. Doubters should visit the
IPCC homepage and
read in detail about the modern world's most
important issue. Read the 2018 report about the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. Ask yourself: What will happen in countries that
already have a hunger problem when population increases at the same
time as the food supply decreases? What will happen to hundreds of
millions of climate refugees, forced to move by water wars or rising
seas, when other countries refuse to accept them? What will happen when
climate change indirectly causes old diseases to migrate or new
diseases to emerge from the melting permafrost? And so on. The list is long.
what might have happened if governments and legal scholars had read
and understood my 2012 text and decided by international agreement to
limit the death penalty to people who cause a million deaths. First,
thousands of prisoners on
death row in diverse countries would have been released. Second, many
influential global warming deniers would have been convicted. At that
point, public climate denial would suddenly have stopped. Politicians
and corporations would suddenly have started taking the warnings of
scientists seriously. That would have precipitated
a fast turn-around in global climate policy and a rapid reduction in
carbon emissions, of the kind later recommended by IPCC to limit
1.5°C. That would have saved hundreds of millions of lives that
otherwise would have been cut short by global warming in the future.
Perhaps billions. Popular movements such as Extinction Rebellion would
never have emerged, because the risk of human extinction would have
disappeared. But even that is no
argument in favor of the death penalty,
because the same goal could
have been achieved with life sentences. In any case, in this scenario
none of the
executions would actually have happened: in real life, rich and
influential people don't get executed, at least not any more. Any death
sentences would have been commuted to life imprisonment. Meanwhile, the
death penalty would effectively have been
Climate change and human rights
Climate change is today's
biggest human rights issue, because it will seriously affect
or kill more people than any other category of human-rights violation. The converse is also true: human rights are the most
important climate-change issue.
You wouldn't know that from the public discourse about climate change, which often focuses on
money. How much will it cost to reduce emissions? How many jobs will be
lost? How much will climate change cost us in the future? What about economic growth?
Discourse about human rights
similarly avoids climate change. Often, it focuses on individuals. Of course it is essential
to apply international pressure to free prisoners of conscience and
commute death sentences, again and again, for as long as it takes. That's what we do in Amnesty
International. But it is also necessary, and
even more important due to the enormous numbers of affected
people, to consider the basic
rights of unidentified climate change
victims. As Amnesty emphasizes, every
person has the same inherent value, independent of skin
color, gender, age, public profile, legal record and so on.
say, this principle applies to influential climate deniers in the same
way as it applies to millions of peasant farmers in Bangladesh whose
livelihood is threatened by rising sea levels, to give one of many
In the rich countries, we are living our lives as if this is not
happening. We are in denial about both poverty and climate. The good news is that the preventable child mortality rate has
been falling, slowly but surely, for decades. The bad news is
climate change will make it
increase again and could double
by the end of the century. This approximate prediction follows directly
knowledge about physical, social and political aspects of the
situation. But almost everyone is ignoring the future death toll in
connection with climate change. Instead we are talking about other aspects of
climate change -- or avoiding the topic altogether.
Just because the future death rate is hard to predict doesn't mean we should ignore it!
Climate change is also racist, affecting black
people more than white, although being caused by white people
more than black. It will affect women
more than men and children
more than adults, making it sexist and agist.
are universal. The right to life is obviously the most important
right; this point is unfortunately missing from the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948),
presumably due to an ambiguity about the death penalty that remains to
this day. What is clear is that everyone has the right to life, rich or
poor, black or white,
adult or child, man or woman, guilty or innocent. Influential climate
deniers have the same right to life as the children currently
living in poverty in developing countries whose future lives could be
destroyed by climate change.
message has evidently not sunk in, because still today in 2019 hardly
anyone is talking about the right to life of a billion people. Since
2012, many have become more aware of the urgency of climate
change. But there is still precious little literature or public discussion
about long-term future death tolls, nor is there much willingness in
the academic community to address this issue. I know this, because I
am currently trying to publish in this area.
Why are people are not talking about the right to life of a
billion people? Perhaps they disagree with the following two
sentences? Every person in the
world, whether black or white, female or male, young or old, poor or
rich, guilty or innocent, has the same right to live. Even influential
climate deniers who indirectly kill millions of people by blocking
climate solutions have the same right to live.
From today's perspective, even the executions that followed the
Nuremburg trials in 1946 were not justified, although the Holocaust was
clearly the worst crime in history. The death penalty is
climate change a form of genocide? The short answer is no, but the
comparison is important. Climate change is even worse than genocide in
that it will probably cause hundreds or even thousands more deaths than a
case. But it is not as bad as genocide in the sense that the main
actors (the influential
climate deniers) do not intend to kill anyone. They are merely
criminally negligent. From a human-rights perspective, there has never
been a worse case of criminal negligence. From my original text:
the GW deniers would point out straight away that they don't intend to
kill anyone. ... The GW deniers are simply of the opinion that the GW
scientists are wrong. ... [They are] enjoying their freedom of speech
and perhaps they sincerely believe what they are claiming. They can
certainly cite lots of evidence (you can find evidence for just about
anything if you look hard enough).
The only thing that could be worse than climate change, as it will probably develop during the coming century, is
human extinction. Human extinction is possible (and increasingly likely) if
climate change gets out of control,
that is, if global mean surface temperature starts to increase of its
due to climate feedbacks, with no help from human emissions. Which is a
good reason to wake people up with a scandalous statement.
Climate denial and the death penalty
not the only one to contradict myself. A profound contradiction existed
already, and continues to exist, in the opinions of climate deniers and
death penalty supporters, who are often the same people (think US Republican party). How can you
support the death penalty for the most serious crimes, while at the
same time contributing to what might be the most serious crime of all
Noam Chomsky has
described as the US Republican party as the world's
most dangerous organisation, mainly
because of its contribution to global climate change. But his
claim would be true even if we considered only US militarism. US forces
have bombed 24 countries since
is a map), killing untold millions of civilians, and pushed
mainly (not only) by Republicans in the background. If you are looking
for an example of the most sinister and hypocritical modern
here it is.
Those Republicans who claim to be Christian should get out their Bibles and
read what Jesus said and did. Read about humility,
and caring for other people, especially those who suffer from poverty,
illness, or discrimination. Read about telling the truth and exposing
hypocrisy. Read about living simply and eschewing luxury. Read about
forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and pacifism. Jesus probably had olive-colored
skin and was himself a victim of the death penalty.
Roughly every second US-American is a death penalty
In 2012, roughly the same proportion were climate deniers (depending on
definition); the proportion has fallen since then, but is still
shockingly high. Probably much the same applies to the whole world. It follows that many of my numerous critics were death penalty
supporters themselves, falling somewhat embarrassingly into the
additional trap of hypocrisy. These commentators deliberately ignored the paragraph where I explained
in detail why the death penalty is never justified. Instead,
scandalized my thought experiment about the death penalty for one
climate denier, as if that were more important than
the premature deaths of a million people due to
death penalty is racist, at least in the USA, because the proportion of
black victims is greater than the proportion of black people in
the general population. My statement was also
about racism. The climate denier in my fictional scenario was
presumably white; the
victims were presumably black. If you wanted indirect confirmation that
sexism, is almost everywhere in the hidden assumptions of people of all
political persuations, the public discussion that followed the
discovery of my text was a startling new piece of evidence (more).
For some people, it seems, one white life is more valuable than a
million black lives. A million!
The question I asked in my scandalous text could be rephrased like this: Are influential climate
deniers death-penalty candidates according to the logic of 100
million American death-penalty supporters? I implied this question for two reasons:
first, to expose an inherent flaw in the arguments of those people (and many other
people all over the world), and second
(and more importantly) to protect the right to life of a billion children
in developing countries.
Influential climate deniers have the same right to life as each one of
those billion children. But contrary to their wild claims, the deniers are not in danger,
nor did my text pose the slightest danger to anyone. I was quite sure
of that when I wrote it:
- The death penalty is
traditionally used by the powerful to control the powerless. Influential death-penalty candidates can save themselves by pulling
strings in the background. It is unfortunately not true that "everyone
is equal before the law".
In a legal context, it would be practically impossible to accuse a
climate denier of causing a million deaths. Attribution would be
difficult. There are too many uncertainties surrounding the future of
global climate, the (social/political) causal connection between
climate denial and emissions, and the (physical) causal connection
between emissions and climate change. The accused
would argue that the proposed connections are too
uncertain. They could get around arguments based on risk assessment
theory, because there is little precedent for such quantitative
arguments in law. All of this would happen as if the hundreds of
millions of victims of global warming did not exist.
Courageous or evil? Perpetrator or victim?
- Even if the International Criminal Court
suddenly started trying influential climate deniers for crimes against
humanity, and found some of them guilty, there would be no death
penalties. The ICC completely rejected the death penalty long ago, for
the usual good reasons. The
ICC will not change its mind even if half the people in the world think the the death
penalty is an appropriate punishment for an influential
climate denier -- or anyone else who knowingly causes millions of
Most responses to my text fell into two categories. Total strangers
who care about the future of our children wrote to me
confirming that the accusations were false,
thanking me for my courageous contribution, and regretting the "shitstorm" (a new word for me). Other
total strangers who evidently do not jumped at the chance to present themselves as
and someone else as the villain. In other words, they tried to
the perpetrator-victim relationship.
As I later found out, many of them were already experienced players of
In fact, I was neither perpetrator nor victim. As far as climate change
If these two points (both of them!) and their
implications were widely recognized, we would be moving faster toward a
- the main
perpetrators are influential climate deniers, and
main victims are a billion children in developing
I was standing on the sidelines, trying to tell the truth about
this unfolding 21st-century tragedy and thinking aloud about possible
solutions. That's not always easy in a media environment that is so
deeply infected by "fake news".
Meanwhile, the media seemed to be obsessed with my guilt or innocence. Was I evil? Should I
be allowed to teach innocent students?
In fact, the only "crime" I had
committed was to defend the right to life of a billion people. I had
also considered how this goal could really be achieved in
practice. For that purpose,
we need to ask difficult questions about the social and political
forces that are driving climate change, and consequently how many
future deaths influential climate deniers are causing. From a
human-rights perspective, these
are today's biggest legal issues, yet they continue to be ignored. My crime was to dare to write about a taboo topic.
Climate death row
What does the death penalty have to do with climate change?
I proposed that, if the
death penalty was limited (by
global agreement) to individuals who knowingly
cause a million deaths, some of the most influential climate deniers
would become candidates. At the
same time, all prisoners on all death
rows in all countries would be released. I don't recall seeing any
discussion of this idea -- whether in the media, the internet, or the
emails I received. I will return to it below.
There is another reason why I included this horror scenario in my text. Every person whose future life is
threatened by climate change is effectively on
death row. This
applies in particular to a billion innocent children in developing
countries. Unlike the influential climate deniers in my fictitious
death-penalty scenario, whose lives are not in the slightest danger,
those children really will die prematurely. Our emissions really are killing them. Where is the outcry about that?
In this way, the death penalty and climate change are related
political/moral issues. If we are genuine about our intention to promote universal
human rights, we should dare to compare. If we want to end the death
penalty everywhere, we also have to save a billion innocent children
from climate death row.
Climate death is similar to the death penalty in other ways.
Perhaps the most obvious is this: When climate change victims die, their death is anthropogenic
(caused by humans). Another
similarity involves the probability of premature death. The uncertainty of the death penalty is a cruel
aspect of this archaic form of punishment. US
death row typically
wait for ten
years (more). Many people in climate-vulnerable countries such as Bangladesh
(and many other developing countries) will wait for a similar period for the day
when they become climate refugees, not knowing where if anywhere they
will live in future, or if they will survive the journey.
So which is worse?
knowledge, the answer is neither. From the
victim's viewpoint, premature
death is always horrific.
- Death by firing squad, hanging, fatal
injection, or electric chair (death penalty)?
- Death by hunger, disease, heat stress, or violence as a result of climate change and poverty?
That being the case, we can now compare the human cost of the death penalty with the human cost of poverty and climate change. The
public response to my 2012 text suggested that the average person
considers the death penalty to be a more serious problem than either poverty or climate change. The public discussion focused on the death penalty, although I had written at length about all three issues, starting with poverty and climate change.
In fact, for those of us who consider every human life to be equally
valuable, poverty and climate change are even more serious issues than
the death penalty. In order-of-magnitude estimates, over
the coming century perhaps 100,000 people will die prematurely as a
result of the death penalty (currently perhaps 1000 per year in China
alone). That is profoundly and
incomprehensibly schocking, but the human cost of poverty and climate
change is much more so. During the same period, perhaps a billion
people (10m/year) will die prematurely in connection with poverty, even
in the absence of
climate change. Perhaps a further billion will die prematurely as a
result of climate change. That makes the global human cost of poverty
and climate change
10,000 times bigger than the global human cost of the death penalty!
The death penalty is certainly a bigger crime
than poverty or climate change because of the premeditated intention to
kill. Those who are contributing most to poverty and climate change are
merely being negligent and do not intent to kill anyone. But the
climate deniers and fossil-fuel CEOs are also fully informed about the
consequences of their actions and are proceeding anyway. Moreover, from
a global perspective the mortal consequences of poverty and climate
change are much, much worse than the mortal consequences of the death
penalty. To what extent might "mass murderer" might be an appropriate term under these circumstances?
Climate change will also cause
an enormous number of species to go extinct. They too are on death row. There is a real danger
that homo sapiens will be one of those species. If so, climate change could be a death sentence for humanity.
If we took that threat seriously, we might be more serious about
cutting emissions. A more likely scenario is that people with more
money will survive, whereas those with less money will perish. Again, that can only mean one thing: cut all emissions urgently.
The main point of this discussion is to protect the right to
life of a
billion children in developing countries. If we want to protect their
rights, we have to prevent actions that are threatening them. To do
that, we have to attract attention to the problem and present
convincing arguments. If almost everyone is
ignoring the rights of a billion children -- and that is really what is
happening, still today -- it is appropriate and
necessary to shock people into waking up.
What I am really "calling for"
I don't know how many media reported that I had "called for" the death
penalty for climate deniers. Some German-language media even used the word Forderung (demand). I guess they were desperate to sell
Those who actually read my 2012 text know
that it did not directly "call for" anything. I had chosen my words
carefully. I had repeatedly used the word "propose", implying an invitation
discuss (French: pro
+ poser). This intention was correctly recognized by Austria Presse
was entitled "Uni-Professor stellt Todesstrafe zur Diskussion"
(university professor puts the death penalty up for discussion / raises
issues about the death penalty). After all, there is a difference between "proposing" marriage and
"calling for" it. A chef who "proposes" a delicious dessert is not demanding that customers eat it. An academic who writes a "research proposal" is offering some interesting ideas and
claiming that they have potential -- not
a grant agency to fund the project.
The text you are
now reading is different. I am now calling for several things.
International Criminal Court should identify and try the most
influential climate deniers. If found guilty of the charge of
indirectly causing millions of future deaths, they should be jailed for
life, to secure what is left of justice for untold future millions of
climate victims and systematically suppress climate-denial culture. As I wrote:
From a scientific viewpoint, there is no doubt that influential climate deniers are indirectly causing
millions of premature deaths in the future. That could
be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law by inviting
expert witnesses to provide opinion and evidence within their area of
Until now, convictions of
murder or manslaughter have only been possible if
justice demands that these traditional restrictions be lifted.
That would have important and possibly far-reaching implications for
theories of justice,
including natural law, social contract, utilitarianism,
consequentialism, distributive justice, property rights, and
- a direct causal connection could be demonstrated between the action and the death,
- the dead were individually identified, and
- the conviction occurred after the deaths had happened.
But we don't have time for a long, complex,
abstract, academic discussion. We can't wait until the end of
civilisation before realising that the most influential climate deniers
are among the most guilty people in all of human history and finally
deciding to convict them. At that late stage, the legal profession (or
what is left of it) will have other things to worry about.
More generally, I am "calling for" the following:
the taboos and the "elephants the room". Start talking about the real issues.
truth, and care about it. Honesty and caring are related to
each other. Both are in short supply.
everyone agrees that all people are equally valuable. Put this basic
principle of human rights into practice. The biggest
problems are those that affect the most people the most
- Given that human lives are more important than money or jobs (employment), focus on lives. Instead of
balancing present financial costs of mitigation with future financial costs of adaptation, balance present human costs of decarbonization with future human costs of climate change.
devote more time, energy, and money to bigger problems and less to
smaller. That is the best way to sustainably improve any
situation. Focusing on smaller problems and neglecting larger ones (as
often happens in
politics, the media, and private conversation) is a recipe for disaster.
We need more honesty, compassion, and political will. We need to decide to
address the problem seriously, at last. Are we capable of making an
honest decision and sticking to it? If millions of individuals make the right decision,
the problem can be solved. Only then will the burning
of fossil fuels, the destruction of forest, and the production of meat
and concrete rapidly slow down and approach zero.
- Urgently and drastically
reduce all greenhouse-gas emissions in all sectors. The
indirect killing of future
people has to stop, and it has to stop now. Not in ten
years or even
next year, but now. If I'm
"calling for" anything, that's it.
A solution that takes human
rights seriously will mean fast economic changes that
bring global economic turbulence. But nothing can be more turbulent
than what climate change will bring later this century. From that viewpoint, these are reachable goals. It's no longer a question
of research to reach them. We now understand the physics, chemistry,
biology, geology, technology, economics, psychology, and sociology of climate change in
What is a climate denier?
2012 text included a link to "desmogblog". The intention was to
clarify the concepts "climate denial" and "climate denier" by providing
examples. This was necessary because the terms are used in different
ways, as I will explain below. Incidentally, I have never had any kind
of contact of any kind with anyone involved in desmogblog -- neither
before nor after my 2012 text. I simply found their page in the internet.
Climate deniers are experts in the art of lying
and truth distortion. They deliberately misinterpreted my link to
desmogblog, claiming that the link turned my text into a
"death threat". The people listed by
desmogblog, they claimed, were the designated victims.
Needless to say,
that was patently absurd -- typical denialist nonsense. My clearly
and repeatedly stated proposal was to limit the death penalty to
people who cause a million deaths. This idea can only apply to the
most influential climate deniers. At the most, only a handful of
by desmogblog could possibly fall into this category. Moreover, there is a big difference between making a
death threat and discussing a possible legal procedure. In any case, it was only a link. Give me a break.
what is a climate denier, in fact? Like autism, climate denial is a
spectrum. Unlike autism, most people are on the spectrum, somewhere.
Most people reading this text
are climate deniers in the weak sense of not doing anything significant
to reduce their personal carbon footprint or that of people in
their sphere of influence, or not supporting climate action on a
political level. I was a climate denier of this kind for a long time and I have a
big lifespan carbon footprint. We are acting as if climate change was
happening, was not caused by humans, or was not an existential threat
to humanity. We pretend not to know that the golden age of human
civilization is drawing to a close and things will probably get
incrementally worse on a global scale every decade for the next
century. We realise, but refuse to admit, that our present extravagence
and indifference is causing the future suffering of our own children.
The science is speaking, but we are not listening. We are sleepwalking
A smaller number of people are climate deniers in the strong sense of
publicly claiming that climate change is not happening, not caused by
humans, or not an existential threat. An even smaller number are influential
climate deniers who promote the burning of fossil fuels or
prevent climate action from
happening, and thereby indirectly cause enormous suffering in the
future, especially in tropical and developing countries where people
are particularly vulnerable.
For decades, influential climate deniers have been threatening the basic
rights of all people everywhere. Motivated by personal financial gain, they have
been preventing progress toward climate solutions by suppressing
important scientific information, confusing the public, and hindering
progress at global
My 2012 text was not about all climate deniers, however defined. It was only about influential climate deniers -- specifically, those influential enough to cause a
million deaths. More generally, I was talking about
anyone who might by any means cause a million deaths. Those who wanted
to misrepresent me intentionally got this wrong and pretended I wanted
to "kill all deniers".
Given what we know about the main causes and effects of climate change, a single influential climate denier could
indirectly kill a million future people. By "kill" I mean "cause death"
or "end lives prematurely". Thought
if the number was exactly one million? What if we knew them all by
name? According to universally accepted principles of human
rights, every one of those 1,000,001 people (including our climate
denier) would have the same inherent
value and the same inalienable rights. Not one of those people would deserve to die
Who is guilty? Who is racist? The ethics of evil
The outraged climate deniers, and many others who fell into the trap of
taking climate deniers seriously, eagerly presented me as evil. That was a textbook example of hypocrisy. In the same breath, they were ignoring the right to
life of countless millions of future climate change victims in
developing countries -- as if those people neither existed nor
mattered. What could be more evil than that?
The right to life of those people was obviously what my
text was about (first page). Children in developing countries
really are on death row: they really will die prematurely with a
certain probability, and we (with our emissions and denial) are really
the cause of their future deaths. When will that message get through?
How loud does one have to scream before people get it?
people who carry the most responsibility for the human consequences of
climate change are the most influential climate deniers of the past few
decades. If the size of a crime is measured only by the number of deaths it causes, climate change may be considered the greatest crime in human history. What
punishment is appropriate for the worst criminals ever? If the death
penalty is out of the question (as it should be), it is important first
of all to end the death penalty everywhere. If the climate deniers of
the world agreed with that, they would be at the forefront of
international anti-death-penalty activism. But they are not.
Evidently, many people still haven’t clicked that Black Lives
Matter. The message may have reached their heads, but it is still
waiting for the journey into their hearts. As an example of how
important but difficult this journey is, consider the case of the
Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, who in late 2018 and early 2019 pushed
global climate action forward like almost no one else before or since.
She did that by courageously telling truth to power. I am her
greatest fan. I cannot express how much gratitude I feel toward her and
all the other young leaders who have recently emerged in the struggle
for humanity's future. But even Greta's truth
was incomplete, because even she had not (at the time of writing)
mentioned the main future victims of climate change, namely children in
My statement was related to the trolley problem
in ethics. Is it ok to kill one person to save the lives of five
people? If a runaway trolley (train carriage) is about to run over and
kill five innocent people, is it ok to divert the train onto another
track, where it will run over and kill only one, or is it ok to push
one person onto the track in front of the trolley, sacrificing one life
to save five? Is a person who does something like that "evil"? Is a
person who agrees that it is ok to do something like that "evil"? Or is
it the other way round -- is a person who fails to do that (or
disagrees with doing that) "evil"? There is no clear answer to this
question, but the disagreement does suggest that killing someone is
about five times worse that failing to take reasonable action to
prevent someone's death.
The trolley problem was implied when I wrote
"I wish to claim that it is generally ok to kill someone in order to
save one million people". This sentence, as formulated, is obviously
true for anyone familiar with the trolley problem, because the number
one million is so much bigger than the number five. But even that
doesn't justify the death penalty for mass murderers, first because the
death penalty is never justified (for the usual reasons), and second
because a prisoner can reliably be prevented from causing any (further)
harm simply by keeping him or her in prison.
These things may be obvious, but still no-one is talking about them.
The victims of this cowardly silence will be our children and
grandchildren, after we die of old age -- still pretending to be
innocent. Evidently, we don't care about our children and
grandchildren, otherwise we would be talking about this. I am not
accusing anyone here: as usual, I am just trying to formulate a logical
conclusion that is consistent with certain premises.
accuse me of being "evil" for attracting attention to this problem is
laughable, but countless people did that, and I haven't received
any apologies yet.
What actually happened
I made the final changes to my blog in October 2012, there are several
important things that I did not know or could not anticipate:
I deleted and apologized
the blog as soon as the first complaints started to arrive just
before Christmas 2012. In
retrospect, that was inappropriate. How can one apologize for
defending the right to life of a billion people?
- That it could be found in Google Cache after I deleted it.
- That it would then "go viral".
- That people on both sides of the debate would misuse it for their own purposes.
the global climate denial community had many years of experience in the
art of attacking climate researchers (more), especially those with the
courage to publish uncomforable truths.
- That neither academics nor the media were very good at identifying and ignoring climate deniers.
I apologized not only because of the wild, crazy
accusations of the deniers, but also because of the ambiguous response
from some of the smart, caring people whom I had expected to support
me. Evidently, the world was not yet ready for this kind of truth. (Is it ready now?)
The deletion was in vain. The blog was discovered and posted against my will at a new address. That's how I
that "the internet never forgets". The sensational reactions that
followed in the media and climate denial blogs referred exclusively to
that had been withdrawn and deleted.
I then became a victim of cybermobbing. In a globalized game of Chinese whispers, in which quasi-randomly selected
climate deniers and boulevard media reporters were the players,
exaggerated interpretations of my text were re-exaggerated in a hysterical
self-reinforcing crescendo. Climate
deniers reported on their webpages that I wanted to kill them and
exhorted each other to send me their thoughts by email.
I wasn't the first to find myself in a situation of this kind. Some
three years later, a well-known climate denier
sent me a list of people who had suggested legal responses to climate
denial, including (in his interpretation) the death
penalty. Presumably they were all attacked in a similar way. The
statements were dated 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2012 (not
including my text). Some argued that climate denial is a form
treason, for which the penalty in USA is still death (as if
Middle Ages had never ended). Others argued that influential climate
denial is a crime against humanity, for which (in some interpretations,
but not that of the International Criminal Court) the penalty is death.
was accused of a shopping list of things that I
never did. I should have expected that. I was
deniers, and lying is what they do for a living -- on behalf of, and
funded by, the rich fossil fuel industry. Besides, I can hardly
accuse the deniers of exaggerating when I did so myself. Many climate deniers are also experienced
bullies, having attacked climate scientists in the past. The "crime" of
those climate scientists, like my "crime", was to dare to tell the
truth about climate change and climate denial in public, and the
staggering future consequences, especially for developing countries.
It's no wonder the deniers were upset. My
blog exposed their massive guilt. They reacted by
applying their carefully acquired skills in truth
distortion, combining cyberbullying
Their attempt to make me look guilty and evil was a strategy
attention from their own guilt and malice. Well, they can try as hard
as they like to ruin my reputation, but I am not about to give up
defending the fundamental rights of a billion people.
uproar was surprising
when you consider that I had presented an idea that most
people in the world, and even most people in liberal Western Europe,
would immediately agree with: to limit
the death penalty to people who cause enormous numbers of deaths. I merely considered the
implications, asking which
people in the world might be candidates if the death penalty were
limited in this way.
were as shocked as I was by my conclusions. But it was my
intention to shock, in the hope that the world's most important
problems would at last be taken seriously. Wake up, world. Hopefully,
many people realised (perhaps even for the first time) that
climate denial is the most important social and political force behind
climate change, (ii) climate change will probably indirectly kill
hundreds of millions of people, if not billions, and (iii) the death
never justified. A new
formulation of this argument can be found here.
People expected me to defend myself. I
was reluctant to do so, because the lives of hundreds of
millions of children in developing countries are obviously more
important than my reputation. If I was going to defend
anything, it was the basic rights of an enormous number of
people. That is also what my self-righteous
critics should have done -- and should still be doing.
A thought experiment
At the end of 2012, I guess some 200 people objected publicly
my text, claiming or assuming incorrectly that I had “called
for” the death penalty for influential climate deniers.
half of them contributed to internet blogs and the other half wrote
Imagine what would have happened if those 200 people had actually read
my statement -- not just the title, omitting the question mark, but the
whole thing. What if they had actually thought about it and understood
what it was really about? Imagine those 200 light bulbs lighting up.
Those 200 pennies finally dropping.
Now imagine those 200 people apologizing for their previous postings or
emails and instead objecting publicly to the future premature deaths of
a billion people in developing countries. Imagine them explaining the
indirect causal role of influential climate deniers, but also of all
residents of richer countries, in those future deaths. Imagine those
200 people understanding how we, every day, take advantage of an unfair
global economic system, and on top of that emit too much greenhouse
gas, and how that makes us responsible for the present and future
avoidable death toll in developing countries.
If that is hard to imagine, let's instead try to imagine just ten of
those people objecting publicly to the mega-fatal future consequences
of climate denial. Still hard to imagine? Perhaps just one person? This
line of thought raises an interesting question: Does anyone at all care
enough about this to be honest about it? Does anyone have the courage
to break the ice? Or have we all secretly agreed in some kind of global
conspiracy to avoid talking publicly about our guilt?
From this brief analysis, and regarding my 2012 text as a kind of
social experiment, designed to find out who if anyone has seriously
considered these issues, we can now formulate our conclusions. Many
people consider the life of an influential climate denier to be roughly
a million times more important than the life of a person living in
poverty in a developing country whose life will be shortened as a
result of climate denial. A million times! We know this because most
participants in the public discussion of my text were more unhappy
about the possible death of an influential climate denier than the
million deaths that that person apparently caused. In fact, the million
victims were not even mentioned.
Now imagine asking those 200 people what they think of the following
claim: Every human life has the same value, regardless of skin color,
gender, wealth, age, religion, and so on. Presumably, they would all
agree. Of course, they would say, it's obvious.
Are we going to start talking about this? Or do we prefer to keep our
heads in the sand? An alien visitor from outer space would be
astonished at the difference between what humans say about morality and
what they actually do. A million to one! The hypocrisy is truly
The Catholic condom ban
The idea of "death penalty for the pope" was obviously absurd and I
included it in my text only in passing, as an explanatory
It exposed a contradiction that is inherent
in the opinions of death-penalty supporters, many of whom are
Christians: if the death penalty is
appropriate for the most serious crimes, what are those crimes exactly?
Surely anyone who has indirectly caused the deaths of milllions of
people (e.g. by not ending the Catholic condom ban in the 1980s) is a
candidate? Since the 1980s, over 30 million people have died from AIDS.
The discussion about Catholic paedophilia has made steady
progress, although it is surely not over yet. But there has
almost no mention of the human-rights
implications of the Catholic condom ban, without
which millions of
AIDS victims would still be alive today. Tragically, neither the church
nor the general public has found the courage to talk about this
openly and honestly. Denial is not the answer. The ban is presumably
still indirectly causing thousands of AIDS deaths every year. The Wikipedia
page on this topic is informative but biased, because so few
people have the courage to defend the rights of the victims.
is religious hypocrisy at his worst: preaching universal love while at
the same time indirectly causing massive suffering and death.
Christians should read their Bibles, which incidentally say nothing at
all about contraception but a lot about moral courage (more),
and imagine what Jesus would say about the condom ban if he was here
death penalty is another case of Christian hypocrisy that Jesus would
surely have exposed. How can a modern Christian be a
death-penalty supporter, as countless millions of Americans are, when (i) Christianity is supposed to be about
universal love and forgiveness, and (ii) the death
penalty caused the world's greatest
tragedy from a Christian perspective, namely the death of Jesus? The
Old Testament contains many references to the death penalty, explaining
when it should be applied according to ancient laws and practices. But
the whole point of Christianity is that the teachings of Christ
challenged Old Testament law and exposed its hypocrisy, as a Christian internet source explains:
New Testament does not have any specific teachings about capital
punishment. However, the Old Testament ideas of punishment became
secondary to Jesus' message of love and redemption. Both reward and
punishment are seen as properly taking place in eternity, rather than
in this life.
It's surely as simple as that? Incidentally, I may be atheist but I am
neither anti-religious nor anti-Catholic. On
the contrary, my best friends and colleagues tend to have an altruistic
orientation and for that reason have always included Christians. The
Western music that I study in my research and perform in my spare time
is a wonderful byproduct of Christian history. I acquired musical
skills by performing Christian music. Moreover, I am fascinated by the
richness and diversity of the world's religious rituals. Trying to
understand their psychology is one of my research areas.
recent years, Pope Francis has been defending the rights of the global
and opposing climate change at the highest level, for which he deserves
everyone's admiration and support. At the same time, he is failing to
introduce urgently needed reforms. Ending the condom ban is one. More
generally, all forms of discrimination, based for example on gender or
sexual orientation, should be ended, consistent with the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights. For those who believe the Bible contains
absolute truth, enough evidence can be found. Many
scriptures point toward gender
equality. While the Bible is unclear about homosexuality,
many passages oppose discrimination
of any kind.
Three premises, one
The argument that I presented in 2012 can be interpreted in
different ways. One approach is to consider the logical
relationship between premises and conclusion. Consider the
Premise 1. About
half of the
people in the world still consider the death penalty to be justified
for the most serious crimes. We know this from surveys; the exact
proportion depends on how you ask the question. Changing their minds is
one of today's great challenges.
Premise 2. The
crimes are those in which one person knowingly causes enormous numbers
of deaths. This should be obvious from a human rights perspective, in
which every life has the same value. One could also estimate the amount
of suffering or the number of (quality) life-years lost, but that would
not significantly change the present argument.
Premise 3. The
climate deniers are causing or have caused enormous numbers of future
deaths. Those deaths will occur, for example, as the future death toll
in connection with poverty in developing countries rises in response to
multiple side-effects of climate change. Deniers cause future deaths by
hindering projects that would otherwise slow climate change. Many
people reject this logic, of course, and many others have not thought
about it. I have been
trying in vain for years to discover valid counterarguments.
If all three premises are true, then for those people who (erroneously)
believe in the death penalty for the most serious crimes (premise 1),
"death penalty for the most influential climate deniers" is merely a logical conclusion.
Needless to say, I am opposed to this conclusion, because I am opposed
to premise 1. In general, the conclusion can be changed if we
change any one of the three premises.
Changing premise 1 means convincing death penalty supporters that the
death penalty is never justified. That is the aim of anything that I
have ever written about the death penalty. The outraged public reaction
to my 2012 blog suggested that I made some progress. First,
many climate deniers realized that the death penalty is never
justified, after imagining being candidates themselves. Second, others
who normally never mention human rights suddenly started to talk about
I don’t believe premise 2 can be questioned. From a human rights
perspective, it is obviously correct, and I am not aware of any other
Nor do I believe premise 3 can be changed. The deniers will continue to
deny the causal connections, of course. Their behavior is complex and
resists a simple explanation. According to psychological
theory of moral development, some of them are immature
(selfish, dishonest, opportunist, irresponsible). Others may be
gullible or lacking in skills of critical
thinking. In any case, the law should expose and punish such
profound examples of irresponsibility, to protect the rights of others.
However hard they try, the deniers cannot change the logical
relationship between the above conclusion and premises. Nor can they blame me or anyone else for pointing this out. I did not
create this situation! I could cite literature to
that all elements of the argument that I presented in 2012 existed in advance. I merely put
together the pieces of the jigsaw, and then found the courage to defend
the right to life of a billion people.
The legal principle of proportionality
In my scandalous blog, I proposed limiting
the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths. My whole text revolved that point. The
was to attract attention to the massive human cost of climate
billion human lives are really on the line. My story about the death penalty
may have been fiction, but the victims of climate change really will
There was an interesting twist. If such a proposal were
accepted internationally, the result would probably be what we
anti-death-penalty activists have been working toward for decades: the
total end of the death
penalty. First, all
criminals on death row in all countries would be saved.
with the possible consequences of implementing the new agreement, even hard-core death-penalty supporters would
change their minds. The penny would finally drop.
penny might drop, too. People might finally realise that for political
reasons the death penalty can never be applied according to
legal principle of proportionality in criminal law -- the idea that the
size of a punishment should reflect the size of the crime. It would become clear that there are people in
our midst who knowingly but indirectly cause enormous numbers of
deaths, but are never prosecuted. Others are executed for smaller
crimes such as murder (of one person), drug trafficking, rape,
blasphemy, treason, and
so on. If the death penalty is not being
applied proportionally, it
should not be applied at all.
My idea of
limiting the death penalty to people who cause a
million deaths was
also based on the equal
value of every
human life. Therefore, you can measure the size
of a crime by estimating the number of lives that it ended prematurely.
Both proportionality and human value are accepted
quasi-universally, so their combination should also be
to this criterion, influential climate
denial is one of the few most serious crimes of all time. This
realisation has very serious consequences for those many people who are
influential climate deniers and supporters of the death penalty. They
have a choice: either stop denying climate change or stop supporting
the death penalty. I warmly recommend doing both.
Many death penalty supporters already agree
that the seriousness of a crime
depends on the number
of deaths caused. Some legal scholars are still proposing the death penalty as punishment for genocide (more). Others claim that the perpetrator
the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, "deserved" the death
penalty because of the large number of people killed (168).
with these arguments is that the death penalty will not achieve anything.
It will not bring the dead back to life, nor will it prevent similar
tragedies in the future. Those who support the death penalty claim that it is
deter the most serious crimes, but empirical studies have provided evidence
both for and against that proposition. Careful statistical
analyses of relevant variables in different US states failed to find a
significant effect (more).
both the size of a crime and the size of the punishment are to be
proportional to the number of people killed, and if these principles
are to be applied consistently, it should be clear even to
death-penalty supporters that most death sentences should be commuted. Hopefully the
international discussion will begin soon. The situation could not be more urgent: according to Amnesty
Chinese government is still secretly killing over one thousand of its
own citizens every year.
Other legal issues
In the unprecedented case of
global warming, the law seems unable to enforce natural law
and defend natural
rights, according to which every natural person has the same
basic rights, of which the most
important is the right to life. It is not possible
in international law to go to court in one country and defend the right to life of a billion
children in other countries.
Influential climate deniers are still considered legally innocent, as if they
were merely exercising their right
to freedom of speech. But the
right to life is
obviously more important than the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, infringements
of basic rights that involve larger numbers of people
(here, billions) are obviously more important than those
smaller numbers, everyone being equal before the law.
If Holocaust denial can be made
illegal, so can climate denial. Besides, a legal
foundation to protect the rights
of children in developing countries already exists, namely the
Declaration of Human Rights. It is widely respected and
implemented in many
different ways in many national legal systems.
Given the overriding importance of these
issues, you would expect to see a public discussion, but there is none. The legal
profession should be addressing these issues now, while we still have
time to achieve some kind of justice.
the right to
have the highest priority and it also implies that the death penalty is never justified.
climate deniers cannot be held responsible
for crimes against humanity (and the
legal profession has so far made little progress in that direction),
then it is hard to imagine how the basic rights of a billion people
can be protected. In that case, the law will have failed spectacularly.
I am unaware of anyone who has estimated the number of deaths that an
influential climate denier can cause. However many writers have approached the topic from
Jean Ziegler has argued that every child who dies of hunger is
murdered. While I have the greatest respect and admiration for his
courageous and inspiring contribution, I disagree with the use of the
word "murder" in this context. There is an important difference between
negligence, however extreme, and murder. (The special status of the
Holocaust by comparison to other massive crimes involves the
premeditated nature of the killing.) But Ziegler is right that most of
those dying children (and they are dying right now as I write and you
read this — what could be more horrific than that?) could
been saved if we in the rich countries had bothered in the past few
decades to create a fair global economic system. In the future, those
children will die because right now we are not bothering to stop global
warming. I guess an appropriate term for this extreme form of
negligence is “indirect killing”.
Philosopher John Nolt, author of an influential 2015 book on
environmental ethics, wrote a paper in 2011 entitled “How
Are the Average American's Greenhouse Gas Emissions?” in
calculated that the emissions of the average American today are killing
or seriously harming one or two future people. If that was not a
wake-up call for every rich or middle-class person in every rich or
almost-rich country, I don't know what it. But hardly anyone knows
about this very important piece of work. Nolt should be a household
In her book "Merchants of Doubt", Historian Naomi Oreskes brilliantly
documented the actions of past climate deniers. It will be a great day
in the history of law and justice when the main culprits are tried
according to the evidence that she and others have painstakingly
collected. If the trial is fair, they will presumably find themselves
behind bars for the rest of their lives. Oreskes should also be a household name.
In the past few years, the frequency of news reports that consider the
present and future fatal consequences of climate change has been
rising. That is a promising development. In an article published in
September 2017, Mark Hertsgaard realized that “Climate
is literally killing us”. I like this article, but disagree
two points. First Hertsgaard uses the word
the climate deniers do not intend to kill anyone. Second, the number of
people who will die in the future as a result of today's
denialism is much higher than his implied estimates. We are talking
about hundreds of millions and possibly billions.
My favorite journalist is George Monbiot. A long time ago, in
a discussion transcribed and published in May 2007, he said:
We Don’t Deal with Climate Change We Condemn Hundreds of
of People to Death”. The capital letters mean the comment
The more people have the courage to talk about this problem directly,
the more it will be taken seriously. But we are still a long way from
considering the true human consequences of influential climate
denial. It seems that most people are in denial about that
— a form of meta-denial. We are living our lives as if this
not happening or as if we didn’t know about it. As if we were
The bottom line
In closing, allow me to make two main points.
We are talking about a
future victims of global warming are
today's children in developing countries. They really exist, right now.
They are not
"future generations", although of course future generations are also
important. The lives of a billion children living right now really will
be shortened by global
warming, which in plain English means that global warming will kill them, which
means our emissions are
killing them, which means we are killing them. That
these claims follow logically from one another is obvious; the example
could be straight from a philosophy textbook. The shocking nature of
these statements changes nothing about their truth content (whether
they are true is independent of whether they are shocking). If
actively suppress such claims or statements, we are engaging in denial
(which also follows logically from the previous statements). But we
have known about these causal relationships for several decades, and
there has never been a good excuse for denying them.
This is the most
important issue in current politics.
If we assume that every human life has the same value, and apply risk
assessment theory and order-of-magnitude estimates to this problem in a
rational way, we see that global warming, upon which everything on this
planet depends, is probably more serious that all other
comparable problems of global proportions, such as for example the
wealth gap, the risk of nuclear
holocaust, the risk of a genetically
manipulated pandemic, loss of biodiversity and holocene
extinction (the earth's sixth mass extinction event, this
time caused by humans), or the implications of land
degradation for future food production.
It is time for the legal profession, and everyone else, to realise that
humans need food and fresh water to survive,
and global warming will irreversibly reduce both for a large proportion
of the world's growing population. The result willl be the greatest
tragedy humanity has every experienced.
not too late to prevent this mega-catastrophe, but if we are not
careful, it soon will be. The way things are going, we will
back on the 2010s as the decade in which we missed the last opportunity
to save ourselves.
from selected emails
following texts were copied verbatim, with permission of the
authors, from emails that I received
during December 2012 and January 2013. I do not necessarily
with the details of these statements, even if they generally support my
argument regarding the death
penalty is an extreme view but I am
sympathetic. I was more surprised by how vituperative and ignorant some
people have been in response. Good on you for pointing out how research
is carried out, the motivation of scientists and the implications for
"I am always amazed how people, the so-called climate sceptics among
them, find it difficult to cope with doubts and uncertainties such as
those that you showed in your text. You gave expression to an important
moral dilemma: on one hand the refusal to kill, and the freedom of
expression, and on the other hand the fact that people make obviously
very wrong decisions that affect us all and that you want to stop. And
so they pounce on some words, take them out of context and suddenly you
seem to advocate a totalitarian view. Ah well..."
‘At any given moment
is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas
which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without
question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other,
but it is “not done” to say it, just as in
mid-Victorian times it was “not done” to mention
trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the
prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising
effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given
a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow
--- George Orwell, "Freedom of the Press", unprinted introduction to
Animal Farm, first printed, ed. Bernard Crick, Times Literary
Supplement, September 15, 1972: p. 1040."
am sure you know best, that you
haven't done your masterpiece with
this article, but your intentions were good and pure. Everybody, who
knows you, knows that you are a good and honest man. As your article
shows you are also passionate about the future of your children and of
whole the mankind."
"I just wanted to let you know that I think it was a really good idea
publish your thoughts on the page of the university. I saw the death
penalty as a metapher for "this should have consequences", nothing
else…and there are no organizations on the world that caused
more pain, deaths and wars than religions. You might have read
“god is not great”…I’m really
happy someone who a few people listen too has addressed at least one
very critical topic."
you for the interesting
article. It's a sad world where you can't
even make a logical argument any more..."
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